When an Arkansas judge freed Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and James Baldwin – better known as the West Memphis Three – this past Friday, many of us assumed a feature movie would soon follow. After all, the case – which spawned two documentaries chronicling the miscarriage of justice involved in the case – has everything producers could want in a courtroom drama: shockingly brutal murders, alleged Satanic activity, legal injustice, and now, a bittersweet ending where the defendants are freed – but only after admitting guilt while still trying to prove their innocence. It’s perfect for a feature.
It didn’t take long for news that Hollywood was working on a WM3 project to come to light – but this isn’t the typical quick cash grab at a hot story – Devil’s Knot, based on the true crime book by Mara Leveritt, has been in development for several years. This Friday’s sudden reversal of fortune for the defendants has simply made the project timelier than ever.
The project will be a low-budget feature made for under $20 million, according to Deadline. While that’s nothing compared to most mainstream Hollywood projects, Devil’s Knot does at least have a big name director involved: Atom Egoyan, helmer of The Sweet Hereafter, is already attached to the film. Writers Scott Derrickson and Paul Boardman began adapting Leveritt’s book in 2006, and the film was set up at Dimension. However, Dimension put the film into turnaround – allowing former studio president Richard Saperstein (who’d originally acquired the film for Dimension) to return as a producer instead. Egoyan has spent the past six weeks working with the writers on a new draft of the script. Plans were to fund the film independently, but that could change after last week’s ruling – we’re guessing many studios will be interested in a fictionalized take on this story.
The one dark cloud in this otherwise bright story is that the WM3 will apparently be unable to profit from any of the books or films made about the case. The Alford plea they entered works essentially like a plea bargain, meaning they admit guilt. The catch here is that they’re able to continue to work to prove their innocence – but for the time being, they’re considered guilty and were released based on the 18 years they served for the crimes they apparently didn’t commit.
Now that we know a movie is in the works, let the casting rumors commence. How about James Franco or Michael Pitt as Damien Echols?